February 28, 2004


No juveniles for the chair — The Supreme Court should rule that lengthy prison sentences are more appropriate for young killers

Oregon doesn’t execute murderers younger than 18, nor does it casually hand out death sentences like they were parking tickets.

But some states do, earning the periodic scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court’s decision this week to revisit the constitutionality of executing juveniles is yet another needed and welcome foray into this sticky moral issue.

The Supreme Court should rule that executing juveniles is unconstitutional, or at least outside the bounds of society’s evolving standards of decency. A lengthy or lifelong prison sentence is a more appropriate punishment for juvenile killers on the cusp between childhood and adulthood.

The Missouri case heading to the Supreme Court involves a man who robbed and killed a woman when he was 17 years old. The high court expressly forbids executions of people who were 15 or younger at the time of the crime. Juveniles who kill at the age of 16 or 17, however, occupy a constitutional gray area.

The court ruled in 1989 there is no “national consensus” against executing killers who are 16 or 17. But the court’s opinion may be changing with the times.

Only 3 states —Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia — have executed juvenile offenders during the past decade. Twelve states outlaw capital punishment altogether, and another 17 states and the federal government forbid it for all juveniles. The number of death sentences handed to juvenile killers nationwide has dropped significantly, from 15 in 1999 to 4 in 2002.

What’s more, recent publicity over wrongful convictions, shoddy legal defense and lack of evidence in capital cases has made the nation more aware that society can make mistakes in the pursuit of justice.

States and the federal government should reserve the right to execute society’s most vicious and calculating killers. That power should be used sparingly, however, saved for the murderers who most egregiously violate the social contract.

In other words, states should follow the example of Oregon, which has executed 2 people in the past 2 decades, not of Texas, which will execute 4 people this month.

Deciding when and how to apply the death penalty will remain subjective, since every murder is reprehensible and every murderer cannot be executed. Making distinctions based on age may feel as arbitrary as the legal distinctions based on IQ and mental illness.

But all of these distinctions, ideally, should be guided by the same principle: whether the accused killer has the capacity to understand consequences and culpability. People who are insane or profoundly retarded don’t. Neither do many teenagers.

Society should err on the side of caution and reserve death sentences for the worst criminals who know what they’ve done — and for those who, if wrongly accused, have more than a snowball’s chance of mounting a defense.